Earth Day: Where Utah Stands on Wildfires, Air Quality and Drought

Our climate is changing. We can keep arguing about what’s causing it or whose fault it is (or isn’t) and what we should be doing about it, but the reality is our Earth is a different place than it was one million years ago, 100 years ago and even one year ago. 

Since last Earth Day, the severity of wildfires has continued to escalate—which, along with other factors, has contributed to our worsening air quality—and current drought conditions have warranted a state of emergency in Utah, threatening not only our water but our precious snow and ski season.

Climate change and its effects have fallen off our radar during the COVID-19 pandemic, but as we all adapt to the “new normal,” the challenges of the old normal have not simply evaporated. And many of the climate-related challenges we’re facing feed into each other, amplifying the severity across the board when one or the other goes unchecked. Here’s where we stand (and how you can get involved) this Earth Day. 

Utah Wildfire Season 

Utah has already seen an increase in human-caused wildfires early this year, according to the BLM. By mid-February, there were 13 wildfires in northern Utah and all of them were started by human activity. 

Earth Day: The state of wildfires in Utah (photo courtesy Utah Fire Info via Facebook)
Photo courtesy Utah Fire Info (via Facebook @UtahWildfire)

By mid-April, Utah Fire Info reported 126 wildfires across Utah so far this year, burning more than 9.5 square miles. Fire managers say that this is well above the 5-year average for this time of year (46 starts and 189 acres). The overwhelming majority of the wildfires have been human-caused. 

Last year, people were responsible for starting 154 of the 170 wildfires in northern Utah—“a grim statistic that we do not want to repeat,” said Brett Ostler, Fire Management Officer of the Utah Division of Fire, Forestry & State Lands.

The increased fire danger is fueled by a lack of precipitation, increased public use and unburned fuel from last year. Climate change is also considered a key factor in multiplying those dangerous conditions, doubling the number of large fires between 1984 and 2015 in the western United States.

Utah Air Quality

Multiple counties in Utah received failing grades for their air quality in the American Lung Association’s recent State of the Air Report, with Salt Lake County seeing an increase in the number of days with unhealthy ozone levels compared to last year.

The Salt Lake/Provo/Orem metropolitan area is one of the most polluted cities, according to the report, ranking 8th for the number of high ozone days.

The report found more than 40% of Americans—about 135 million people—are living in places with unhealthy levels of ozone or pollution (high concentrations of the infamous particulate matter, PM 2.5). The report also found that climate change is making air quality worse, and the authors urged policymakers to take action by shifting away from our reliance on fossil fuels.

The Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute prepared the Utah Roadmap in 2020 to assist policymakers in improving air quality and address the causes and impacts of a changing climate. The Roadmap recommended the State of Utah reduce carbon dioxide emissions statewide, 25% below 2005 levels by 2025, 50% by 2030 and 80% by 2050.

We’ve yet to see a policy adopting the recommendations, but this past legislative session, Utah lawmakers did pass a few piecemeal air quality-related measures. 

Utah Drought

In March of this year, Gov. Spencer J. Cox issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency due to drought conditions. In effect, the drought declaration activates the Drought Response Committee, tasked with responding to the disaster. 

By mid-March, 90% of the state was experiencing extreme drought and the snowpack was at about 70% of the average for the year. Utah DNR reported mid-April that recent storms were not enough to pull the state out of drought. The snowpack peaked 10 days early at 81% of average. Peaking early means the runoff will be less effective at getting water where it needs to go.

Governor Cox also called on Utahns to do their part, “I ask Utahns to evaluate their water use and find ways to save not only because of current drought conditions but also because we live in one of the driest states in the nation.” The Governor’s order directed Utahns to more water-conserving tips

Utah Earth Day 2021

While the above information can feel overwhelming, Earth Day, and the surrounding weeks, offer a number of opportunities to get involved with climate action, activism and clean-up and conservation efforts on the local level.

Salt Lake City Public Lands Volunteer Events: The Salt Lake City Public Lands Division hosts stewardship events throughout the year at parks and natural lands that need community member volunteers.

Earth Day at the Utah State Capitol (April 22, 2–5 p.m.): Fridays for Future Utah, Sunrise SLC, the Granite School District for Clean Energy and youth organizers and adult allies planned this event at the State Capitol. 

Youth Climate Revolution Now! Reclaiming the Climate Change Narrative Through Community Power (April 22, 6–7 p.m. via Zoom): the Sierra Club Utah Chapter hosts a conversation about Earth Day and community-driven climate action. Be sure to register in advance. 

Earth Day at the Aquarium (April 22, 10 a.m.): The Loveland Living Planet Aquarium is hosting an Earth Day event for the whole family, including take-home seeds to plant. 

Party for the Planet at Tracy Aviary (April 22–24): The Tracy Aviary holds a range of activities from scavenger hunts to Aviary keeper talks, virtual nature journaling and birding walks. 

Salt Lake Film Society Earth Day film screenings "A Climate Change Film Tour:  Inspire, Empower, Action."
Salt Lake Film Society Earth Day film screenings

A Climate Change Film Tour (April 22–29): The Salt Lake City Film Society’s Climate Change Film Tour celebrates Earth Day, launching “Inspire. Empower. Action.”

Earth Day River Clean-Up (April 23, 3–5 p.m.): HEAL Utah and the Jordan River Commission invite volunteers to the Jordan River for a socially distant trail and canoe clean-up in South Salt Lake. 

Earth Day River Clean-Up (April 24, 10 a.m.): Saving Oceans hosts an event to pick up trash at the Jordan River in James Madison Park to help protect the river ecosystem.

Earth Day Placemaking Event (April 24,10 a.m.–2 p.m.):  Westside Studio, University of Utah and the SLC Public Lands Division host event for tree planting, sidewalk painting, litter pick up, etc. at Poplar Grove Park & 9th South River Park.

Clean Air & Stewardship Town Hall (April 26, 2-2:45 p.m.): A town hall with Blake Moore, the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, and the American Conservation Coalition. Be sure to register in advance.

Arbor Day Celebration at Red Butte Gardens (April 30): Technically an Arbor Day event, pre-registration opens on Monday, April 26 at 9 a.m. Space is limited.

While you’re here, check out our latest print issue of Salt Lake magazine and some of the big outdoor events returning this summer.

Christie Porter
Christie Porter
Christie Porter is the managing editor of Salt Lake Magazine. She has worked as a journalist for nearly a decade, writing about everything under the sun, but she really loves writing about nerdy things and the weird stuff. She recently published her first comic book short this year.

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